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October 2008, Volume 14, Number 4

Dust Bowl Migration

In 1930, California had 5.7 million residents, and the population shrank as 120,000 Mexicans were repatriated. In the 1930s, farmers from the Midwestern Dust Bowl states, especially Oklahoma and Arkansas, began to move to California; 250,000 arrived by 1940, including a third who moved into the San Joaquin Valley, which had a 1930 population of 540,000. During the 1930s, some 2.5 million people left the Plains states.

The Modesto Bee on September 30, 2008 reviewed Dust Bowl migration to California. A series of wet years in the 1920s led farmers to believe that the Plains could sustain annual plowing to produce wheat. Drought in the 1930s allowed dust storms to carry away top soil, darkening the sky even at mid-day.

As families realized that the drought and dust storms would not end, some sold what they could not take and began to drive west on Route 66. Many hoped to become hired hands on California farms, learning how to grow fruits and vegetables while living on the farms where they worked. However, California farms typically hired seasonal workers only when they were needed, and used farm workers to perform specific tasks rather than learn how to become farmers in their own right.

The experiences of Okies and Arkies were memorialized in John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, "The Grapes of Wrath." It told the story of the fictional Joad family's migration from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California, which was considered the Promised Land. Dorthea Lange's 1936 Migrant Mother photo (, taken at a pea-pickers' labor camp in San Luis Obispo county, is often used to symbolize the plight of the Midwestern migrants in California.

The woman Lange photographed in Migrant Mother was Florence Owens Thompson, who later lived in Modesto. Lange, who never got Thompson's name, said that the family sold the tires from the car to buy food. However, Thompson said that the car needed a fan belt, and that the family drove away from the pea pickers' camp after the picture was taken.

The share of San Joaquin Valley residents who were born in the Midwest rose from 12 percent in 1935 to 19 percent in 1940 and peaked at 22 percent in 1950. In 1940, over 40 percent of those who moved to the San Joaquin Valley from the Dust Bowl were farm workers, according to the Census. However, many joined the military or found jobs in factories, so that only 25 percent of Midwestern migrants remained farm workers in 1950.

Rick Wartzman's book," Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's the Grapes of Wrath," recounts the battle of Kern county's chief librarian, Gretchen Knief, to prevent the Board of Supervisors from banning "The Grapes of Wrath" from schools and libraries; they banned it on a 4-1 vote. "Grapes" was the most popular book in the US in August 1939, when a backlash led to a ban on sending the novel via the US mail and efforts to ban it from many school and public libraries.

Farmer W.B. "Bill" Camp called "Grapes" "obscene in the extreme sense of the word," and organized a public book burning in downtown Bakersfield. Farmers were very upset by passages in "Grapes" that discussed the poor taking what they need by force.

John Holland, "Dust Bowl migration altered California's politics, religion, culture," Modesto Bee, September 30, 2008. Wartzman, Rick. 2008. "Obscene in the Extreme. The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's the Grapes of Wrath." Public Affairs.

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